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Authors: Ellis Peters

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BOOK: The Summer of the Danes
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what was astonishing about this remote and rural community was that it seemed
to be over-populated to a startling degree. As soon as they approached the
precinct they found themselves surrounded by a bustle and purpose that belonged
to a prince’s llys rather than a church enclave. Besides the busy carpenters
and builders there were men and women scurrying about with pitchers of water,
armfuls of bedding, folded hangings, trays of new-baked bread and baskets of
food, and one strapping lad hefting a side of pork on his shoulders. “This is
more than a bishop’s household,” said Cadfael, staring at all the activity.
“They are feeding an army! Has Gilbert declared war on the valley of Clwyd?”

think,” said Mark, gazing beyond the whirlpool of busy people to the gently
rising hillside above, “they are entertaining more important guests than us.”
Cadfael followed where Mark was staring, and saw in the shadow of the hills
points of colour patterning a high green level above the little town. Bright
pavilions and fluttering pennants spread across the green, not the rough and
ready tents of a military encampment, but the furnishings of a princely

an army,” said Cadfael, “but a court. We’ve strayed into lofty company. Had we
not better go quickly and find out if two more are welcome? For there may be
business afoot that concerns more than staunch brotherhood among bishops.
Though if the prince’s officers are keeping close at Gilbert’s elbow, a
reminder from Canterbury may not come amiss. However cool the compliment!”

moved forward into the precinct and looked about them. The bishop’s palace was
a new timber building, hall and chambers, and a number of new small dwellings
on either side. It was the better part of a year since Gilbert had been
consecrated at Lambeth, and clearly there had been hasty preparations to
restore some semblance of a cathedral enclave in order to receive him decently.
Cadfael and Mark were dismounting in the court when a young man threaded a
brisk way to them through the bustle, and beckoned a groom after him to take
their horses.

may I be of service?”

was young, surely not more than twenty, and certainly not one of Gilbert’s
ecclesiastics, rather something of a courtier in his dress, and wore gemstones
about a fine, sturdy throat. He moved and spoke with an easy confidence and
grace, bright of countenance and fair in colouring, his hair a light, reddish brown.
A tall fellow, with something about him that seemed to Cadfael elusively
familiar, though he had certainly never seen him before. He had addressed them
first in Welsh, but changed easily to English after studying Mark from head to
foot in one brilliant glance. “Men of your habit are always welcome. Have you
ridden far?”

Lichfield,” said Mark, “with a brotherly letter and gift for Bishop Gilbert
from my bishop of Coventry and Lichfield.”

will be heartily glad,” said the young man, with surprising candour, “for he
may be feeling the need of reinforcements.” His flashing grin was mischievous
but amiable. “Here, let me get someone to bring your saddle-rolls after us, and
I’ll bring you where you can rest and take refreshment. It will be a while yet
to supper.”

gesture from him brought servants running to unstrap the pack-rolls and follow
hard on the visitors’ heels as the young man led them across the court to one
of the new cells built out from the hall.

am without rights to command here, being a guest myself, but they have got used
to me.” It was said with an assured and slightly amused confidence, as if he
knew good reason why the bishop’s circle should accommodate him, and was
forbearing enough not to presume upon it too far. “Will this suffice?” The
lodging was small but adequate, furnished with beds, bench and table, and full
of the scent of seasoned wood freshly tooled. New brychans were piled on the
beds, and the smell of good wool mingled with the newness of timber. “I’ll send
someone with water,” said their guide, “and find one of the canons. His
lordship has been selecting where he can, but his demands come high. He’s
having trouble in filling up his chapter. Be at home here, Brothers, and
someone will come to you.”

he was gone, with his blithe long strides and springing tread, and they were
left to settle and stretch at ease after their day in the saddle.

said Mark, pondering this first and apparently essential courtesy. “Is that by
way of taking salt, here in Wales?”

lad. A people that goes mostly afoot knows the value of feet and the dust and
aches of travel. They bring water for us to bathe our feet. It is a graceful
way of asking: Are you meaning to bide overnight? If we refuse it, we intend
only a brief visit in courtesy. If we accept it, we are guests of the house
from that moment.”

that young lord? For he’s too fine for a servant, and certainly no cleric. A
guest, he said. What sort of an assembly have we blundered into, Cadfael?” They
had left the door wide for the pleasure of the evening light and the animation
to be viewed about the court. A girl came threading her way through the
purposeful traffic with a long, striding grace in her step, bearing before her
a pitcher in a bowl. The water-carrier was tall and vigorous. A braid of glassy
blue-black hair thick as her wrist hung over her shoulder, and stray curls blew
about her temples in the faint breeze. A pleasure to behold, Cadfael thought,
watching her approach. She made them a deep reverence as she entered, and kept
her eyes dutifully lowered as she served them, pouring water for them,
unlatching their sandals with her own long, shapely hands, no servant but a
decorous hostess, so surely in a position of dominance here that she could
stoop to serve without at any point abasing herself. The touch of her hands on
Mark’s lean ankles and delicate, almost girlish feet brought a fiery blush
rising from his throat to his brow, and then, as if she had felt it scorch her
forehead, she did look up.

was the most revealing of glances, though it lasted only a moment. As soon as
she raised her eyes, a face hitherto impassive and austere was illuminated with
a quicksilver sequence of expressions that came and passed in a flash. She took
in Mark in one sweep of her lashes, and his discomfort amused her, and for an
instant she considered letting him see her laughter, which would have
discomforted him further; but then she relented, indulging an impulse of
sympathy for his youth and apparent fragile innocence, and restored the gravity
of her oval countenance.

eyes were so dark a purple as to appear black in shadow. She could not be more
than eighteen years of age. Perhaps less, for her height and her bearing gave her
a woman’s confidence. She had brought linen towels over her shoulder, and would
have made a deliberate and perhaps mildly teasing grace of drying Mark’s feet
with her own hands, but he would not let her. The authority that belonged not
in his own small person but in the gravity of his office reached out to take
her firmly by the hand and raise her from her knees. She rose obediently, only
a momentary flash of her dark eyes compromising her solemnity. Young clerics,
Cadfael thought, perceiving that he himself was in no danger, might have
trouble with this one. For that matter, so might elderly clerics, if in a
slightly different way.

said Mark firmly. “It is not fitting. Our part in the world is to serve, not to
be served. And from all we have seen, outside there, you have more than enough
guests on your hands, more demanding than we would wish to be.” At that she
suddenly laughed outright, and clearly not at him, but at whatever thoughts his
words had sparked in her mind. Until then she had spoken no word but her
murmured greeting on the threshold. Now she broke into bubbling speech in
Welsh, in a lilting voice that made dancing poetry of language. “More than
enough for his lordship Bishop Gilbert, and more than he bargained for! Is it
true what Hywel said, that you are sent with compliments and gifts from the
English bishops? Then you will be the most welcome pair of visitors here in
Llanelwy tonight. Our new bishop feels himself in need of all the encouragement
he can get. A reminder he has an archbishop behind him will come in very
kindly, seeing he’s beset with princes every other way. He’ll make the most of
you. You’ll surely find yourselves at the high table in hall tonight.”

Cadfael echoed. “And Hywel? Was that Hywel who spoke with us when we rode in?
Hywel ab Owain?”

you not recognise him?” she said, astonished.

I never saw him before. But his reputation we do know.” So this was the young
fellow who had been sent by his father to waft an army across the Aeron and
drive Cadwaladr headlong out of North Ceredigion with his castle of Llanbadarn
in flames behind him, and had made a most brisk and workmanlike job of it,
without, apparently, losing his composure or ruffling his curls. And he looking
barely old enough to bear arms at all!

thought there was something about him I should know! Owain I have met, we had
dealings three years back, over an exchange of prisoners. So he’s sent his son
to report on how Bishop Gilbert is setting about his pastoral duties, has he?”
Cadfael wondered. Trusted in both secular and clerical matters, it seemed, and
probably equally thorough in both.

than that,” said the girl, laughing. “He’s come himself! Did you not see his
tents up there in the meadows? For these few days Llanelwy is Owain’s llys, and
the court of Gwynedd, no less. It’s an honour Bishop Gilbert could have done
without. Not that the prince makes any move to curb or intimidate him, bar his
simply being there, for ever in the corner of the bishop’s eye, and ‘ware of
everything he does or says. The prince of courtesy and consideration! He
expects the bishop to house only himself and his son, and provides for the rest
himself. But tonight they all sup in hall. You will see, you came very
opportunely.” She had been gathering up the towels over her arm as she talked,
and keeping a sharp eye now and then on the comings and goings in the
courtyard. Following such a glance, Cadfael observed a big man in a black
cassock sailing impressively across the grass towards their lodging.

bring you food and mead,” said the girl, returning abruptly to the practical;
and she picked up bowl and pitcher, and was out at the door before the tall
cleric could reach it. Cadfael saw them meet and pass, with a word from the
man, and a mute inclination of the head from the girl. It seemed to him that
there was a curious tension between them, constrained on the man’s part, coldly
dutiful on the girl’s. His approach had hastened her departure, yet the way he
had spoken to her as they met, and in particular the way he halted yet again
before reaching the lodging, and turned to look after her, suggested that he
was in awe of her rather than the other way round, and she had some grievance
she was unwilling to give up. She had not raised her eyes to look at him, nor
broken the vehement rhythm of her gait. He came on more slowly, perhaps to
reassemble his dignity before entering to the strangers.

Brothers, and welcome!” he said from the threshold. “I trust my daughter has
looked after your comfort well?”

established at once the relationship between them. It was stated with
considered clarity as if some implied issue was likely to come up for
consideration, and it was as well it should be properly understood. Which might
well be the case, seeing this man was undoubtedly tonsured, in authority here,
and a priest. That, too, he chose to state plainly: “My name is Meirion, I have
served this church for many years. Under the new dispensation I am a canon of
the chapter. If there is anything wanting, anything we can provide you, during
your stay, you have only to speak, I will see it remedied.”

spoke in formal English, a little hesitantly, for he was obviously Welsh. A
burly, muscular man, and handsome in his own black fashion, with sharply cut
features and a very erect presence, the ring of his cropped hair barely salted
with grey. The girl had her colouring from him, and her dark, brilliant eyes,
but in her eyes the spark was of gaiety, even mischief, and in his it gave an
impression of faint uneasiness behind the commanding brow. A proud, ambitious
man not quite certain of himself and his powers. And perhaps in a delicate
situation now that he had become one of the canons attendant on a Norman
bishop? It was a possibility. If there was an acknowledged daughter to be
accounted for, there must also be a wife. Canterbury would hardly be pleased.
They assured him that the lodging provided them was in every way satisfactory,
even lavish by monastic principles, and Mark willingly brought out from his
saddle-roll Bishop Roger’s sealed letter, beautifully inscribed and
superscribed, and the little carved wood casket which held the silver cross.
Canon Meirion drew pleased breath, for the Lichfield silversmith was a skilled
artist, and the work was beautiful.

will be pleased and glad, of that you may be sure. I need not conceal from you,
as men of the Church, that his lordship’s situation here is far from easy, and
any gesture of support is a help to him. If you will let me suggest it, it
would be well if you make your appearance in form, when all are assembled at
table, and there deliver your errand publicly. I will bring you into the hall
as your herald, and have places left for you at the bishop’s table.” He was
quite blunt about it, the utmost advantage must be made of this ceremonious
reminder not simply from Lichfield, but from Theobald and Canterbury, that the
Roman rite had been accepted and a Norman prelate installed in Saint Asaph. The
prince had brought up his own power and chivalry on one side, Canon Meirion
meant to deploy Brother Mark, inadequate symbol though he might appear, upon
the other. “And, Brother, although there is no need for translation for the
bishop’s benefit, it would be good if you would repeat in Welsh what Deacon
Mark may say in hall. The prince knows some English, but few of his chiefs
understand it.” And it was Canon Meirion’s determined intent that they should
all, to the last man of the guard, be well aware of what passed. “I will tell
the bishop beforehand of your coming, but say no word as yet to any other.”

BOOK: The Summer of the Danes
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